State's, region's growers say study predicting $5 per pound tomatoes is flawed

David Albers/Staff 
 A tractor works its way down rows of tomato plants on an Immokalee farm in November 2012. If Mexico is forced to pull tomatoes from the U.S. market, the price for a pound of certain tomatoes could double, according to The Fresh Produce Association of Americas.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff A tractor works its way down rows of tomato plants on an Immokalee farm in November 2012. If Mexico is forced to pull tomatoes from the U.S. market, the price for a pound of certain tomatoes could double, according to The Fresh Produce Association of Americas.

An unidentified tomato picker from Immokalee stands in front of Publix's newest store in Miami, Saturday, March 31, 2012, to demand that the grocery giant join the Fair Food Program.  (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

An unidentified tomato picker from Immokalee stands in front of Publix's newest store in Miami, Saturday, March 31, 2012, to demand that the grocery giant join the Fair Food Program. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

— Tomatoes for $5 a pound.

The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas predicted that in a recent study. The Nogales, Ariz.-based importers group warned of the "tomato cliff" if the U.S. Department of Commerce terminates a fresh tomato import trade agreement with Mexico at the request of Florida tomato growers.

In a late-January conference call with reporters, the association said if Mexican tomatoes are withdrawn from the U.S. market, prices for some hothouse tomatoes would double from $2.50 a pound to nearly $5 a pound.

Not so, responded growers from the state and Southwest Florida, where about 18,500 acres of tomatoes are grown in Southwest Florida. The tomato production in Southwest Florida is valued at $350 million a year.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said the study is based on too many assumptions.

"It's simply a case of scare tactics by the Mexicans and import industry allied with the Mexicans," Brown said. "Now, they are trying to terrify the public and it's just unfortunate."

It's simply a case of scare tactics by the Mexicans and import industry allied with the Mexicans."

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Exchange

Likewise, the Florida Tomato Exchange disputed the study.

"A recent study citing exaggerated price increases if the U.S. terminates an existing trade agreement with Mexico is built on the false premise that all Mexican tomatoes will be excluded from the U.S. market — under no circumstances will this be true," said Edward Beckman, president of Certified Greenhouse Farmers, in a statement.

"In fact, Certified Greenhouse Farmers believes there is room for all types of growers, and is advocating not to restrict trade, but rather to promote fair trade practices for all growers," he said. "What's more, growers from Certified Greenhouse Farmers — whose livelihoods are at risk due to impacts of the current agreement — believe there are a myriad of issues that need to be addressed beyond price."

Gene McAvoy, a Southwest Florida-based multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS, said the report just creates fear and confusion for consumers.

"I don't think anybody wants them (Mexican growers) to withdraw," McAvoy said.

Instead, he said, Florida growers want Mexican growers to sell their tomatoes at a fair price were everyone can make a fair living, including the Florida farmers.

Florida produces much of the nation's winter tomatoes. Mexico is the largest competition for vegetable growers in the United States, while Brazil is the largest competition for the citrus industry.

A 25-pound box of tomatoes from Mexico costs about $5 each, compared with the cost of about $8 per box to produce tomatoes in Florida.

Growers maintain that a 1996 U.S.-Mexico agreement continues to hurt the state because Mexican growers are selling their tomatoes at unfairly low prices in the U.S., below a floor — or minimum selling — price for the fruit shipped into this country. Florida growers have long complained that Mexican counterparts are taking advantage of the Tomato Suspension Agreement to "dump" their product in the U.S.

A 25-pound box of tomatoes from Mexico costs about $5 each, compared with the cost of about $8 per box to produce tomatoes in Florida.

That puts tomatoes coming in from Mexico at a price below the cost of production, McAvoy said.

"They were basically dumping tomatoes on the market," McAvoy said. "What Florida (growers) want is a reasonable price that growers can live with."

If Florida growers get what they want, McAvoy said, the price would increase by 20 to 40 cents a pound, or retailers could take less of a profit. Today, the average price that supermarkets pay for tomatoes is 20 cents per pound.

Chuck Obern, owner of C & B Farms in the Devil's Garden growing area in Hendry County, said the recent report makes him laugh because it seems like the Mexican lobbyists are stronger than their counterparts in the U.S.

Obern, who has been farming for 26 years, said he stopped growing tomatoes this season because he couldn't compete with Mexico's prices anymore. He had grown tomatoes for more than seven years.

Now, he primarily grows leafy crops, including celery and cilantro — crops that Mexico isn't as strong in growing.

"The reason why all of this is occurring is because we are selectively using our trade policy to allow imports to come into this country without any kind of control," Obern said.

Tony DiMare, vice president for DiMare Co., a major Florida grower with about 4,000 acres of fields in Homestead, Immokalee and the Palmetto/Ruskin growing area near Tampa, said the claim made about prices doubling isn't accurate.

If the trade agreement is to be renewed, DiMare said, Florida growers suggest setting a new reference price that is realistic, monitored and raised according to inflation.

Growers want fair trade, which they haven't had in the past, DiMare said.

"We want the agreement to go away because we feel that it cannot be policed or enforced," he said.

__ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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